There was an age when Russians and Ukrainians stood together to mark May 9, Victory Day, the date when the Kremlin decreed that World War II had ended. That was when the Soviet Union came together to acknowledge the shared sacrifice, a tradition that continued even until last year albeit with very different meanings in the two countries.
Like so much else about that Russian empire, the events marked on that day were a distortion of history and covered a multitude of awkward facts. For that reason, and because Russia has once again launched a vicious imperial war against Ukraine, V-day has become another frontline. This time it’s ideological.
Russia appropriates victory to celebrate its martial grandeur; Russians shout “We can do it again” — a slogan which reminds the formerly captive Central and Eastern Europeans that their countries may once again face imperial expansionism.
This is so strange for Ukrainian eyes that it is now described as pobedobesije (a sort of diabolic frenzy.) Russia marks V-Day as a people so obsessed with victory it is as if the country is possessed.
But there is a logic at work here too. Mass patriotism, and awareness of the sacrifices needed to stand up to a supposed Western threat to the Motherland, are politically useful. Vladimir Putin tells his people that “Russia is a nation of victors” that “would have won by themselves.” The day, including goosestepping legions marching across Red Square, has become a glorification of the Russian Federation as the successor to a global power that saved an ungrateful Europe.
It is a day dedicated to the formation of an exceptionalist national Russian identity, the unification of the nations of the Russian Federation, devotion to the Motherland as the main value and a pillar for Russia’s independence, and the ability to destroy Nazism wherever the Kremlin chooses to see it, for example in Ukraine. The Belarusian journalist and Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich has reflected that the history of victory has replaced the history of the actual war.
Soviet and Russian ideologists have made great efforts to rewrite history to fit this triumphalism. Russia’s V-Day marks the end of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), not the more widely used understanding of World War II as running from 1939-1945. It thus excludes the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which enabled the USSR to invade and seize half of Poland in 1939, and to take over the Baltic states, and more territory in Ukraine and Romania the following year. The Soviet Union also provided Nazi Germany with resources as it was building its strength until the allies became belligerents in 1941.
Russia’s aggression in 2014 made many Ukrainians rethink their interpretation of the holiday. In 2015, Kyiv introduced a “Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation” on May 8, with a less martial slogan “Never Again!” This reflects opinion polls that found 80% of Ukrainians viewed the V-day as one of memory rather than victory.
Ukraine went even further. In 2022 and 2023, Ukrainian lawmakers proposed the abolition of the May 9 holiday, arguing that Victory Day is used by Moscow as an “ideological justification for its aggression. “In an explanatory note, they said “the end of World War II on the European front is celebrated on May 8. However, in other countries it is not a holiday, but a day of mourning for tens of millions of dead. The corresponding mood should be returned to Ukraine as well.” That decision is still pending, but the proposal is indicative of the Ukrainian desire for a different emphasis.
Russian State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin responded to the possible change by saying that “the memory of the victory unites the people of our countries (Russia and Ukraine).”
Ukraine has much to reflect on. It has lost perhaps 100,000 service personnel and multiple thousands more civilians to Russian aggression, while millions more have fled their homes since February 24, 2022. It suffered near-unimaginable losses during World War II, with 8 to 10 million people killed, among them about 5 million civilians, and more than 2 million deported to forced labor camps in Nazi Germany. More than 700 towns and nearly 30,000 villages were destroyed.
Approximately 7 million Ukrainians fought in the Soviet Army in 1941-1945, making up a quarter of all combatants. Half of the survivors were disabled and 2.5 million medals were awarded to Ukrainian servicemen.
Russia now makes the most of a Soviet victory won with so much Ukrainian blood. It does not discuss, or even acknowledge the Holodomor, the manmade starvation of 5 million Ukrainians from 1931-34. It cherry-picks Ukrainian history to bolster its own triumphalist Russian story; it appropriates our lands and our history.
Ukraine will not be formally represented at Russia’s breast-beating parades on May 9, but its presence will be felt through the gaps in the ranks of Russian servicemen, and the missing equipment now lying shattered and rusting on the battlefield.
In 1945, the Kremlin was at the center of the post-World War II world; it helped to establish the United Nations and its collective security ideal. In the years since it has ruined itself with its imperialistic ambitions and aggressive behavior beyond its borders. It has cut the ties of history, hardened hearts, and forced Ukraine to finally decolonize its history and find a more truthful interpretation of its past. At the core of Ukrainian history in the years to come will be another Victory Day (perhaps in 2023 or 2024) to mark its ultimate triumph over Russian fascism.
Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) Her work is focused on analyzing opportunities for Ukraine-Russia reconciliation with regard to fascism and totalitarianism in Russia and their effects on Russia. She is an experienced researcher, who in 2022 conducted the studies ‘The Work of the Ukrainian Parliament in Wartime’ and ‘The War of Narratives: The Image of Ukraine in Media.’
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.